Oxford English Dictionary

(These were initially posted on Romancenovel.tv in Summer 2007.  I’m reposting them here, as they are no longer available there.)

If I had to pick just one resource for the work I do, it might just have to be the Oxford English Dictionary. I bought it on cd when I was first starting in the business, and I have it up on my computer, and running, every time I’m working on questions or a manuscript. I use it that much.

The OED is also in print form, multiple volumes (18 volumes?) and a two-volume compact edition, and I have neither the space, nor the eyesight to manage those. It’s also available online, by subscription (this version is updated regularly,) or perhaps offered as a data base by a library or university system.

I know the reviews for it on Amazon.com are not universally adulatory. I’ve never had any problem with running it on the computer, and verifying the application every three months or so is just not that onerous. And I know it’s not perfect—there are mistakes and omissions. Sometimes Eloisa James will know a word that has been used by Shakespeare, but it’s given an 18th Century date by the OED. But if the date in the OED will suit your needs, you can rest assured that your information is valid.

And the subtleties in it are excellent. For instance, in looking up “nuclear,” the original citations, dating from 1846, indicate just scientific usages in cell formation. But by 1912, the usage has expanded to meaning “central” or “cardinal” in issues of phonics and linguistics. I’ve found many such terms, in which a specific scientific usage gradually expands to a general vocabulary, and you have to decide when your character would have learned the term.

It’s also very useful as a dictionary of slang and idiom. “Last resort” meaning a final attempt, is 1950, but “last gasp,” meaning almost the same thing, is first cited in 1921. It also provides geographic origin, and you would do well to avoid anything labeled “American slang” in your Regency-set novel.

As a caveat, because the spelling is British, with “theatre” rather than “theater” and so on, you will still need an American dictionary, online or in print, to verify the actual spelling of a word. Rather ironic. (1630, per OED.)

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